Dan Sandman

Archive for February, 2015|Monthly archive page

09: Southern Africa by Jonathan Farley

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 27/02/2015 at 12:00 pm

Southern Africa by Jonathan FarleyThis concise history book is focused on Southern Africa as a region, expertly bringing together the central events and personalities that have shaped contemporary South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia. The book is divided into four heading: the economic and social dimension, the political dimension, the security dimension and the foreign policy dimension – with conclusions forming a fifth part. In an authoritative way, the work draws together map-changing events such as the collapse of Portugal’s African empire (1974), the independence of Rhodesia as Zimbabwe (1980) and South Africa achieving majority rule in 1994.

Jonathan Farley has taught African politics on naval officer courses in Greenwich, and expertly guides the reader through the complex and inter-connected politics and issues. He is first to admit that Southern Africa has immense problems – such as AIDS, general insecurity, violence against woman, injustice in Zimbabwe and lack of reconciliation across the colour line (pg. 139) – but is often convincing when discussing solutions to these problems. For example, he supports ‘the onward march of education that will eventually bring about greater enlightenment, greater tolerance and the greatest happiness’. But, the difficulty is, Southern Africa needs to develop a system that can support such luxuries as education, health and lower crime rates. In historical terms, the region is still in its infancy – if we take 1974 as a turning point, as Farley does – and so far, when we consider the relatively recent transference from minority rule to majority rule, it should be credited for the forward steps it has taken. However, one thing is clear, on an unacceptable scale, too many Southern African people continue to suffer from preventable disease, sexist attacks, political corruption and racial division.

On the whole, I enjoyed studying this book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in general history. It is small in size, but packs a big punch, covering the most essential incidents and characters (eg. the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck to the the Cape in 1652). My main criticism is that, for a book published in 2008, during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, it is already dated. One example that stood out for me, is the optimistic way Farley discuses the sacking of Jacob Zuma in regards to the political dimension. When he was deputy prime minister, the current president was rightly fired for taking back-handers. In hindsight, when Farley holds this up as a good example, it is rather disparaging to read. Still, this only goes to show how important it is that we read history books, digest what we have learnt and reflect on this knowledge.

That’s why I write about history.


08: Slow Man by J.M Coetzee

In Books, Fiction on 20/02/2015 at 12:00 pm

Slow Man by J.M. CoetzeeThe South African-born novelist and Nobel prize winner J.M Coetzee (1940 – ) writes character driven fiction with an intellectual edge. His characters are often what might be called outsiders, those wandering souls who find themselves observing society from its fringes. People such as writers, academics, photographers or immigrants; dealing with upsetting events as they struggle with identity crises’.

Paul Rayment, the central character of Slow Man (2005), has had his leg amputated up to the knee following a cycling accident. Elderly and now disabled, Paul’s comfortable life has been upturned, leaving him in need of a professional carer. But whilst his physical needs are remedied by Croatian-born Mirijana Jokic, he begins to develop an emotional attachment that will have consequences for the care worker’s family life. Then, much to Paul’s irritation, the fictional novelist Elizabeth Costello moves into the amputee’s house unwelcome, handing out advice on how he should run his life. And finally, there is the handsome Drago Jokic, the young lad who Paul tries to adopt as a Godson.

I found this book more uplifting than Coetzee’s earlier work, which can often have a dark and disturbing tone. The inventive way in which the ‘Costello woman’ is introduced is pleasing, as are the character arcs involving the Jokic family. Slow Man is an easy enough book to read, and a story that reminded me of incidents in my own life. In other words, the characters are believable, and the insights offered by the author are learned and studied.

‘Another exemplary tale of suffering from one of the best writers of our times’ (The Times).

07: Virtual Light by William Gibson

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 13/02/2015 at 12:00 pm

Virtual Light by William GibsonIn an interview for Wired magazine, the American-Canadian novelist William Gibson (1948 – ) quipped that science fiction writers are “almost always wrong.” And yet, Gibson himself has been nearly spot-on (almost right) with quite a few skeptical predictions regarding this crazy internet age that we surf in. In his debut novel Neuromancer (1984), he predicted the internet, inventing the word ‘cyberspace’ to rightly described this World Wide Web as a “consensual hallucination […] experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.”

Virtual Light (1993), the first part of the Bridge Trilogy, is a noir techno-thriller based in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Ex-cop Berry Rydell and bike messenger Chevette Washington get caught up in a thrill-ride, running away from bent cops and an assassin called Loveless. The story hurtles along at great pace, freely flicking perspective, and often leaving readers overloaded with information. Thematically speaking, all the Gibsonian hallmarks – sub-cultural norms, postmodern realities, evil corporations, voyeuristic television and surveillance, gated societies divided along poverty lines – are treated with his usual imitable style, mixing a carefree flamboyance with an understated simplicity.

As you might have guessed, I’m a William Gibson fan, and if you’d have popped into Primrose Hill Community Library (my local) this week, you might have seen me engrossed, sitting in a comfy red leather chair, sometimes laughing and sometimes scratching my head, but always turning pages and always enjoying this thrill-ride book. Gibson has been criticised for coming across as “adolescent”, particular because he uses graphic violence and colloquial vulgarity to entertain the reader. But when I was a teenager reading Star Wars books every night before bed, growing up in what would become the ‘age of the internet’, Neuromancer got me excited about words in a new way. In those formative years, William Gibson turned my love of science fiction into a love of literature. That was before James Joyce, before John Keats and all the rest. Revisiting Gibson now, I can admire his technical wizardry, marvel at his almost poetic prose, and appreciate his great imaginative capabilities.

Science fiction and literature at its fully engrossing best.

06: Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction on 06/02/2015 at 12:00 pm

Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian FaulksFaulks on Fiction; a Story of the Novel in 28 Characters (2011) is a non-fiction book published by BBC Books. Its essays are divided into four categories: heroes, lovers, snobs and villains; which averages at seven characters per topic. By organising the book (t.v series) in such a thematic way, readers (watchers) are asked to think about popular character types, and engage with fiction in a reasonable way.

Historically speaking, Sebastian Faulks (1953 – ) draws from a wide time-period, beginning with Robinson Crusoe (1719) and including books written in the present day. Focusing entirely on the novel, with a neat writing style, the well-known British novelist and journalist writes very good essays. His strength is to stick to guns, examining ‘the work’ and not ‘the author’s life’. Indeed, Faulks comes across as a firm believer in a strong plot and a healthy imagination, even quoting Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880) at the outset: –

‘The author’s life is nothing; it’s the work that matters.’

Although his views are somewhat conservative – he prefers writers not to write about their own life – his psychological insight is second-to-none. There are so many great lines in this book, so many witty and poignant statements; that even when I was reading about books I hadn’t picked up, he made me want to find them.

He would make an excellent English teacher.